Top of page

General Francis Barlow profile photo
Gen. Francis Barlow. Brady-Handy photograph collection. Created betwen 1855 and 1865. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, //

On the Trail of Francis Channing Barlow: Military Prodigy and Legal Warrior Against Corruption.

Share this post:

The following is a guest post by John Cannan, a former legal analyst with the Public Services Division of the Law Library of Congress. John is currently a faculty scholarship librarian and legal research instructor at the library of the Charles Widger School of Law of Villanova University. In addition to his publications on legal research and statutory interpretation, John has written on campaigns of the American Civil War in the eastern theater. John was an attendee at the recent annual meeting of the American Association of Law Libraries in Boston.  

After a long march through Boston, under a scorching July sun, I found my objective in a small verdant, Brookline cemetery. I pulled back a tree-like weed to reveal a plaque over a nondescript brick mausoleum, sealed in a cinder block. It read:


Born Oct. 19 1834 – Died Jan. 11 1896

Enrolled As A Private Soldier April 19 1861

Appointed Major General United States Volunteers

May 26 1865.

This brief biography told only a small part of one of the most spectacular careers from the Civil War and the decades that followed.

The grave of General Francis Barlow
The grave of Francis Channing Barlow in the Walnut Street Cemetery in Brookline, Massachusetts. Photograph by John Cannan.

Barlow was educated on Brook Farm, the Transcendentalist enterprise, where one of his teachers was Ralph Waldo Emerson. He went to Harvard at the age of 17 and graduated in 1855 as class valedictorian. Afterward, he moved to New York, taking up the law and working as a reporter and editor for the New York Tribune.

Shortly after the Civil War broke out, Barlow enlisted as a private, the same day he married his first wife Arabella Griffith. As the war continued, he rose in rank and command, seeing action in some of the most critical battles in the eastern theater—McClellan’s failed 1862 campaign against Richmond, Antietam’s Bloody Lane, Chancellorsville, and the first day of Gettysburg. He was severely wounded twice and was both times nursed back to health by Arabella, who crossed enemy lines at Gettysburg to give her husband aid. A nurse with the U.S. Sanitary Commission, in part to be near her husband, Arabella contracted typhus from her work and died before the war’s end. Barlow would later marry Ellen Shaw, the sister of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw who died leading the 54th Massachusetts at Battery Wagner in South Carolina.

Barlow joined Grant’s 1864-1865 campaigns against Richmond, during which he won his most spectacular success, leading the troops that shattered the Confederate Mule Shoe salient at Spotsylvania on May 12, 1864. Though ultimately repulsed, his attack captured thousands of Southern troops, including two general officers, and nearly broke the Army of Northern Virginia.

After the war, Barlow flirted with politics, serving as New York Secretary of State, Marshal for the Southern District of New York, and New York Attorney General. As the Empire State’s top lawyer, he battled the scandalously corrupt Tammany Hall organization of William “Boss” Tweed and his associates and allies. Barlow used the New York Bar Association, which he helped found, to police the ethics of the state’s legal profession, and to oust two Tweed judges from their posts. He also tried to bring professional censure on Tweed lawyer, David Dudley Field, who also defended robber barons Jay Gould and James Fisk as they sought domination of several lucrative transportation networks in the state. (Field’s regrettable clients detracted from his more honorable role as the drafter of New York’s reformed codes of court procedure.) Tweed himself was Barlow’s primary target and the attorney general meticulously put in motion the gears of civil and criminal prosecution of the boss and his cronies. Barlow left office before Tweed was vanquished but his work was instrumental in bringing him down.

In full disclosure, my visit to Barlow’s gravesite was to pay my respects for a more frivolous reason — our shared lack of facial hair. Barlow, in a time when most men wore beards, is distinguished in Civil War photographs for being clean-shaven. This gave him the deceptive appearance of a “newsboy” or a young student. He had a reputation for being combative, a quality proven by his tenure as a soldier and state attorney general. His features are perhaps best remembered as a model for the natty Union officer in the painting Prisoners from the Front by Winslow Homer, who was the general’s distant kin.

The record on the Barlow tomb does not fully record his many accomplishments, but you can only stick so much on a plaque.


Subscribe to In Custodia Legis – it’s free! – to receive interesting posts drawn from the Law Library of Congress’s vast collections and our staff’s expertise in U.S., foreign, and international law.

Comments (2)

  1. Excellent presentation. I will look for more on his brave wife!

  2. Overall Barlow is misunderstood and his character not fully appreciated. He is largely linked primarily to his position on Blocher’s Knoll which formed a salient on July 1, 1863. Although the men of the XI Corps fought hard, even to the comments of their foes, they were overrun and forced to retreat through the town of Gettysburg. His military career prior and post is often disregarded and his post war career rarely discussed.

    I’ve been studying and researching Barlow’s entire life with the goal of completing a new biography. An article I’ve written about him and Arabella will be published in Gettysburg Magazine in 2024.

Add a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *